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Good InfoLife lessons: Joseph Coelho on what life so far has taught him

Life lessons: Joseph Coelho on what life so far has taught him


The current UK children’s laureate was born and raised in London and wrote his first poem – about a performing bear – while in year 8 at secondary school. Writing led to performance poetry and running creative workshops in schools. His debut poetry collection was published in 2014, followed by many critically acclaimed picture books, poetry anthologies and novels for younger readers. Coelho is a judge on Govia Thameslink’s national poetry competition for children.

What’s your morning ritual?

Gratitude feels very important to me, so I reflect on the day before and on the things I’m excited about for the day ahead. Coffee is also important.

What makes you angry?

We’re in a clickbait society now, where every terrible thing is pushed down our eyeballs. I have to choose not to look at social media because there are wonderful things happening in the world.

If I wasn’t a poet, I’d have liked to become …

An archaeologist. I studied archaeology at university so had a stint digging up pots and bones. I always joke that there was no money in archaeology so I became a poet.

The habit that has served me best in life is …

A strong work ethic. I’ve always worked. I had paper rounds as a kid and then worked throughout university, doing all sorts of things from brain scans and working in a gym to selling advertising. Having that hustling spirit has really served me well. I’m moving into a nice phase of life now where I can be a bit more intentional about what I choose to do.

The habit I’ve successfully kicked …

Seeing the stressed-out state as normal – little things like realising that your jaw has been clenched for hours. I’m much better now at noticing that and then taking action to destress and give myself time and space. I now give myself a weekend, which I never used to do.

What are your sources of joy?

I love meeting young people. So many of them want to know what it’s like to be a writer, they want to write now–to be published right this moment. I’m often delighted and surprised, seeing little kids supporting one another unprompted. That’s why I think things like poetry writing competitions are so important, because they provide that opportunity for kids to get writing, share their voices and to realise that their words have power.

What do you do when things get tough?

Cycling is really important to me, and just getting out and using my body. During lockdown I got rollerblades and felt like a kid again doing those joyful sporting activities. That felt like a really big discovery. And writing, of course. I always have a notebook with me and try to write every day.

The book I wish everyone would read is …

A lovely picture book called Stop! That’s Not My Story! by Smriti Halls, illustrated by Erika Meza. A little Indian girl is navigating traditional fairytales, but not seeing herself within them. It’s an empowering story of this girl taking charge and making stories her own. It has relevance for everyone in terms of how we can be empowered and how and where we see ourselves reflected.

I always joke that there was no money in archaeology so I became a poet

What’s the big thing you’ve changed your mind about in life?

I was always very cautious growing up, thinking that that keeps you safe.I realise now it does anything but. We are in a world that develops and changes and if you’re not willing to develop and change with it then you can get left behind.

What keeps you awake at night?

I go through like periods where I sleep really well. When I don’t, the things that keep me awake tend to be silly inconsequential things that I feel I haven’t done, or haven’t done well.

My parents taught me …

My work ethic and creative freedom. My bedroom was very much a space where I could play, put things up on the walls. It’s served me well in terms of writing.

I have this theory that …

Life works in spirals, so similar situations, events and people will return. I keep a diary, writing a couple of sentences a day, so I see the patterns. I find that fascinating and otherworldly, but it makes sense: the universe, with its orbits, likes spirals and circles. So why shouldn’t our lives mirror that?

I’d like to tell my younger self …

Not to worry so much. It took me a long time to realise my own agency and take risks. To realise you can always beg forgiveness–as long as you’re not hurting anyone, as long as you’re putting good stuff out into the world – just go for it.

Joseph Coelho will judge the Poetry In Motion competition for children aged between 5-13, run by Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern railways. Ten winners will have their poems displayed at stations and on trains across the rail network this summer. Enter here until 10 May.

Images: Peter Alvey on behalf of Govia Thameslink Railway

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